Oh, to be a chagras - riding the range as…
One of the first things you need to know about driving a dog sled is that you don’t say “mush” to ask the dogs to go. That’s only in the movies. The correct command is “hike”, as though you’re starting a football play. And then you’re off on a winter adventure.
It was an adventure I nearly missed due to a late bus from Calgary to Canmore, Alberta, nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Fortunately, the folks at Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours waited, and quickly whisked me up to the beautiful and frozen Spray Lakes Region, where the adventure begins.
The first order of business is an instruction session. Most importantly, if you’re going to drive the sled, you need to know how to work the brakes. The cardinal rule is: never let go of the sled. Then there are the commands: “Hike” to go; “Whoa” to stop, “Gee” to go right and “Haw” to go left. A couple of other key points: Give the dogs lots of encouragement, and when you’re going up hill, the driver is expected to help out by using one leg to push the sled, or running along side. If you don’t, you’ll experience some serious doggie disdain.
There are a maximum of three people to a sled, and you can just ride, or take a turn at driving. Snowy Owl also has some special offers, if you want only two on your sled, or wish to drive with an Instructor. I paid the regular rate, and so, cozied up with a stranger in the sled bag. Lucky for me, my sled companions were lovely people from the U.K., sharing a love for animals and the outdoors.
Once you’re underway, the experience is incredible. The dogs love to run, and the sled just flies. You’ll even catch a little air over the snow bumps. As a driver, it takes some balance to stand on the runners going around the bends, but the dogs are well-trained, and there were no mishaps.
There is really nothing like it. The air was crisp and pristine, and filled with the sounds of excited barking, and sled runners gliding through the snow.. The scenery was gorgeous with freshly fallen snow. This is low-tech travel in the real wilderness, the way it’s been for hundreds of years. Nature as it was meant to be experienced.
With any activity involving animals, there is always concern that the animals are well cared for and treated humanely. Based on the information available and my own observations, the dogs at Snowy Owl are happy, and healthy. They even have special “Doggie Gatorade”, consisting of hot water and high energy nutrients, to ensure they are well hydrated after a run.
A family run business, the Snowy Owl dog sled teams are made up of 6 different pure bred husky breeds, two of which were once on the verge of extinction. These huskies are the stars of the show.
After the run, hot chocolate and snacks are served around a crackling camp fire. And there is plenty of time for some big, goofy cuddles.
I’m not really a ‘winter” person, but the experience was exhilarating. Rejuvenating even. If you had any worries at the start of the day, they will quickly evaporate, and your spirits will be lifted. That must be why they call these dogs “husky heroes”.